Going East and Heading West

I was going to write this a couple of months ago, but things got in the way. Like life. And a job in the real world. My dog died. Then came winter. And the procrastination that is a symptom of the general overarching malaise that comes from having a stressful job and a dead dog and watching daily on the news a barely sentient madman in the White House and feeling powerless to make that stop before we’re all vaporized by a critical military “error.” It saps one’s creativity, it does.

ANYWAY … a drag queen, his boyfriend and a broken-down Toyota are beside the road in the middle of the desert.

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Thom and Cal (Van Hansis and Kit Williamson) wend their way across America in the third season of EastSiders, now streaming.

It sounds like a set-up to a sensationally bad joke, but it’s actually the beginning of the third season of the acclaimed web series EastSiders.

Wisecracking, acerbic Quincy (Stephen Guarino) and his in-your-face boyfriend Douglas (Willam Belli) are on their way to Palm Springs. Douglas thinks they are heading to a drag gig, but Quincy finally fesses up that he has actually gotten a house for the weekend for the couple to celebrate their anniversary.

The scenes that follow are poignant, hilarious, introspective, witty, zany, sweet and occasionally absurd, but they are all underpinned by creator Kit Williamson’s ear for clever dialogue and his keen storytelling ability.

This is a love story with all of the good, old-fashioned tropes of a traditional love story using characters and situations that are authentic and important because we never get to see these types of characters and their love played out. “Love is love,” the meme tells us, and the deep and meaningful connection that’s played out here between Quincy and Douglas is as good and as moving of a love story as you’ll find anywhere.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, Williamson (as director) has a way of grounding Guarino and Belli — two performers who both, to put it mildly, gravitate toward the broad and the flamboyant — that adds such surprising dimension to the characters. There’s not a single moment in this first episode that I didn’t love.

It’s interesting, because when thinking about this episode, I want think of it as a two-hander, but only when the credits rolled did I realize just how many people are in it. It’s a testament to the power of these characters and their story. (There is a lovely cameo by Matthew Wilkas in this one that deserves a shout-out and Max Emerson has a particularly great throwaway line as well, but really, this is all about Quincy and Douglas.)

Our central characters, Cal and Thom (Williamson again, this time with his actor’s hat on, and Van Hansis) return in episode two as they begin a journey from New York, where they ended up at the end of season two, back to California in a luxury SUV purchased by Cal’s well-to-do mother (that force-of-nature, Traci Lords) towing a vintage trailer.

The confined space of the car and the length of the trip gives the couple plenty of time to reflect on where they are in their lives, how they got there, and what they are going to do when they get back to Los Angeles to start all over again. And their already palpable anxiety gets ratcheted up a few notches when they are robbed of almost everything they have of value after picking up and having sex with “an actual drifter,” played by porn star Colby Keller.

Well, that’s something.

The scenes weave back and forth between Cal and Thom on the road heading West and Cal’s sister Hillary (the hilarious Brianna Brown), her boyfriend Ian (the always delightful John Halbach) and Ian’s former girlfriend, Kathy, played by the great Constance Wu, who may not have been on your radar when EastSiders began but who is now a bona fide TV star, thanks to ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.

The emotional crux of the season comes in the fifth episode, when Thom, in a moment of middle-of-the-night existential angst, admits to being terrified of the future. It’s a raw, emotional moment and it is master class in control from Hansis, one of our very finest actors. Williamson’s deft touch as a director and as a supporting scene partner focuses the action perfectly.

After making their way across the country, Cal and Thom end up back in Silver Lake and back to exactly, geographically-speaking, where one hopes they might end up. If Williamson decides to create a fourth season he’s placed his leads where he needs them. If he doesn’t, it’s the perfect way to stand pat.

You won’t get any more plot points from me; you need to watch this sans spoilers. I will however, encourage you to stay until the very end of the last episode. Everything’s better with a little dash of Jonathan Lisecki. Just sayin’.

EastSiders is available on DVD through Wolfe Video and on a multitude of your favorite streaming services, including Netflix.

A Coda
This is what I wrote about EastSiders in December 2012:

Take a few minutes and watch this new web series from Kit Williamson. Interesting story. Terrific acting. Look, I’ll be honest with you. I’d happily pay to watch Van Hansis read the damn telephone book. I think he’s a sensational talent — and I was delighted to see him in this. … Watch this. You won’t regret it.

I’m never wrong about this stuff. When is the world going to finally realize that, I wonder?

Riverdale: This Ain’t Your Childhood’s Archie Andrews

There’s a good old all-American “gee whiz” quality about Archie comics, those tried and true comic books that have been around since your grandpa thumbed through an issue back in the 1940s. You won’t find that in the new TV version airing on the CW network.

No, in the latest installment, Kevin Keller was trolling the woods for anonymous gay hook-ups and Archie was becoming a vigilante. They have, as they say, strayed from the canon.

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Riverdale is the CW’s riff on all-American boy Archie Andrews and his pals, but you won’t find these stories in your comic book collection.

I have to admit to being fascinated by this show. I generally like it when people take risks with interpreting potentially stale material. I enjoyed the now-cancelled Will, the punk rock meets Shakespeare take on the Bard. I think the new Dynasty reboot is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. And I find the BBC’s Still Open All Hours a sweet (and still funny) homage to the original.

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Original Archie and TV Archie. New Zealander KJ Apa plays the famously red haired hero thanks to a lot of hair dye.

Riverdale is a mashup of Archie Comics, Twin Peaks and every Brat Pack 80s movie. It’s dark — and getting darker by the episode — and more than a bit twisted (Archie had a torrid affair with Miss Grundy; Kevin had a one-off with Moose Mason; Jughead is a fledging gang member).

The storylining is good, the dialogue is a little bit forced, and they may be trying a bit too hard for relevance. Is it too much to ask to see a teen scene at the Chock’lit Shoppe where they are not talking about a murder? Or gangland troubles from the Southside Serpents? Or Riverdale’s new drug scourge, “jingle jangle?”

I do have to give them some props for the Kevin in the woods hooking-up story. It’s a pretty deep take on an issue that we certainly are not seeing on television. It’s going to cause a big riff between Kevin (a strong performance from Casey Cott) and BFF Betty Cooper, but it raises some pretty potent issues that deserve to be talked about. (I’d encourage a read of Ariana Romero’s recent excellent piece on Refinery29.)

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One-time teen screen idols Luke Perry (Beverly Hills 90210) and Molly Ringwald (Pretty in Pink) play Archie’s estranged parents in Riverdale.

Forsythe Pendleton Jones, III — you’ll probably know him best as Jughead — narrates the thing. And former Disney tween star Cole Sprouse does a fine job of playing a broody, intelligent, jaded, slightly smart-mouthed chronicler in a ‘whoopee cap.’

He is, for all the world, channeling every broody, intelligent, jaded, slightly smart-mouthed character that Andrew McCarthy played in every movie he was ever in in the 80s (with the possible exception of Weekend at Bernie’s). But, while it may be derivative, I can’t say it’s a bad thing!

Take old Riverdale out for a spin and see what you think. Whatever happens, you won’t be feeling any warm, fuzzy childhood nostalgia, that’s for sure!

The Real Goodbye

Well, the only gay-themed network sitcom got the axe last week, as ABC cancelled The Real O’Neals after its sophomore season. I didn’t find TRO a groundbreaking sitcom or really even a terrific piece of entertainment, but we have so few outlets for LGBT inclusion in mainstream entertainment these days, I felt compelled to watch.

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Martha Plimpton, Jay R. Ferguson, Noah Galvin, Matthew Shively and Bebe Wood were the O’Neal family, a Chicago-based Roman Catholic brood based loosely on the teenage years of Dan Savage. | Image: ABC

What I found was that it was a series with some flaws, but it also had heart. The actors, directors and producers seemed to genuinely care about the series and they didn’t do a lot of corner-cutting. They did challenge some sitcom norms, but at the same time, they did fall back into some annoying sitcom tropes from time to time. I’m not sure who to fault here, but my bet would be the network.

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Many out guest stars appeared on TRO, often in one of main character Kenny’s fantasies, including Robbie Rogers and Gus Kenworthy as themselves, urging Kenny on compete on the school wrestling team in season two. | Image: ABC

I liked young Noah Galvin, who played main character Kenny O’Neal, the middle child who comes out in the pilot episode. He and TV-siblings Jimmy and Shannon (Matthew Shively and Bebe Wood) had terrific chemistry and their characters and relationships developed early on.

The ensemble was anchored by the always-stellar Martha Plimpton as Eileen, the very Catholic mom who gets a divorce and then begins an inappropriate relationship with her children’s vice principal, played to a lunatic fare-the-well by Matt Oberg.

The writers seemed not to know what to do with Dad after season one and, consequently, Jay R. Ferguson, always a rock-solid performer since his own days as a child actor, was sadly wasted as was Mary Hollis Inboden as wacky Aunt Jackie.

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Sean Grandillo (l) played Kenny’s first “real” boyfriend in a multi-episode story arc in the second season of TRO. | Image: Variety

Sensing what was coming, the writers buttoned up the series nicely, but I’m sorry to see it go. Given the tenor of the times, I suppose I should be grateful that ABC stuck with it for two seasons (well, two half-seasons), but I want more. I want young LGBT kids to see much, much more of themselves reflected back on TV than my generation did. I fear we’re never going to get there.

Here’s some cute bits from TRO, courtesy of NewNowNext:

Source: The 15 Gayest Moments On “The Real O’Neals” | NewNowNext

E3: Season 3 of EastSiders Needs You

You should not look for any objective reporting here.  I’m just simply biased. I fell in love with EastSiders five years ago and have been awed by the talent and the dedication and the blood, sweat and tears that Kit and John and their team have put into this series. They’ve been telling the stories they want to tell on their own terms and, trust me, that’s powerful. And rare.

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Image|EastSiders Season 3 Kickstarter

And it’s also why people connect with them. They are real. They are authentic. They are from a singular vision. Too much of “entertainment” is decided by committee. And that’s why the edges aren’t sharp. It’s why the comedy is lukewarm and the drama is tepid. And it’s why we don’t see stories of substance, stories of depth, stories of importance that reflect the LGBT experience in this country. And now, more than ever, we desperately need to tell those.

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Image|EastSiders Season 3 Kickstarter

If I’ve convinced one person to give to one of these Kickstarters and convinced another five to sit down and watch an episode, then I’ve changed the world just an infinitesimal bit. And maybe even made it better. See if I’m right about that.

Read some of what I’ve written over the last five years (or not) and then go to www.eastsiderstheseries.com and donate to this Kickstarter.
EastSiders – New Web Series Worth Watching 2012
Kickstart This — “Eastsiders” Needs You 2013
Kit Williamson: Logo Online and the Web Series Renaissance 2013
How to Say Thank You — A Saga and a Case Study in Doing It Right 2013
Why I’m Supporting EastSiders — And Why You Should, Too 2014
Kit and Van and Cal and Thom and … Cassandra? 2014
When Not Shutting Up When You are Told to Shut Up is Important 2014
Kit Williamson on Slut-Shaming 2015
Return to Silver Lake – Long-Awaited Arrival of EastSiders Season 2 Does Not Disappoint 2015
Verdict on EastSiders Season 2: Most Assuredly the Best of the Lot 2015
Emmy Nods for EastSiders 2016

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Cal and Thom live in Silver Lake … and also in my guest room in New Jersey.

Lovely Signs of Life

I’ve just had the chance to view a screener of Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Adam Wachter’s short film Sign and if I had to sum it up in one word, that word would be “beautiful.”

Sign is the story of a relationship told entirely through sign language. It’s a bold choice, using a language that the vast majority of your audience is likely not to know and to eschew title cards or captions. It is, however, the correct choice.

John McGinty and Preston Sadleir are the couple at the center of the piece and there is never a moment when they are not sublime. McGinty has one of the most expressive faces and, for a young actor, he shows such a masterly of subtleness that I found it difficult to pull my focus away from him. That, of course, would be my loss, as Sadleir matches him note for note.

As a deaf actor, McGinty is, perhaps expectedly, a master signer and his signing is effortless. Sadleir, the hearing actor, who, in the story, learns ASL to better communicate with his new boyfriend, has a nice arc as you watch the clumsy early signing become more and more deft as the story progresses.

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Preston Sadleir (l) is Ben and John McGinty is Aaron in the terrific short film, Sign.

Keenan-Bolger is, of course, one of Broadway’s Keenan-Bolger siblings whose individual and collective talents seem utterly boundless. He has, in addition to acting and singing and dancing, made quite the second career as a content creator, director, YA author, and filmmaker. He’s a dab hand behind the camera as well as in front. A gifted comedic actor (do yourself a favor and watch him in the web series Submissions Only, which he co-created with Kate Wetherhead), he shows a more sensitive and mature side here. His direction is smart and his cinematography shows he’s ready for a full-length project next.

Don’t think he’s given up the cheeky wit, though. Here, Sadleir’s Ben is seen teaching himself ASL with a Signing for Dummies book; our main couple watch a program on television that’s actually another Keenan-Bolger short, The Ceiling Fan; and he even puts his real-life boyfriend in as a Grindr trick!

Sign is billed as a “silent film,” but that’s giving short shrift to Wachter, whose score is note perfect throughout. It is the foundation upon which these vignettes rest and it seems to me that it functions more than mere underscoring and, instead, buttresses the scenes as a recitative for sign language. His variations on the same musical theme work to ensure that this series of short, disjointed scenes mesh together in a cohesive whole. It might help that Wachter wrote the story as well.

The “truth in journalism” part of this is that I had access to the screener because I gave to the crowd funding initiative for this film. It was worth every penny. Find out if its playing at a local film festival by visiting their website or following the film on Facebook and if you find that it’s playing nearby, then go! You’ll not regret it.

So Long, Larias

I’ve marveled over the years about both the reach of my occasional posts and the staying power of one particular one from 2013. It’s less about me and more about the power of serial storytelling.

blog-salatutYouTuber “MissFinlandia88” started subtitling the gay love story between Elias Vikstedt and Lari Väänänen on the Finnish soap Salatut Elämät (more or less, Secret Lives) about five years ago. In early January 2013, I first wrote about this pairing and how, thanks to one intrepid YouTuber, the show and this couple gained a worldwide English-speaking fanbase. It has been the most-read post on this blog since the beginning.

Social media, you see, works along the same constructs as a soap opera.

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Paavola (left) and Roslöf portrayed Elias and Lari on a Finnish soap opera, known around the world thanks to an intrepid YouTuber who subtitled their scenes for an English-speaking audience.

Sadly, for fans of the Elias and Lari pairing — now known worldwide by the portmanteau Larias — the show has decided to kill off Elias, a shock twist that’s left fans reeling.

Elias came on as an already-out high school student and the son of one of the show’s long-serving characters. He fell for, and had a closeted romance with hockey star, Lari, whose tortured coming-out was the basis for much of their early story. But, it was less about the writing and more about the chemistry between the actors Petteri Paavola (Elias) and Ronny Roslöf (Lari) that propelled the story and sparked the imaginations of the fans.

When Paavola left the show for several months last year, Roslöf’s character took up with older doctor Kalle and now, in spite of Kalle’s recent rampant alcoholism, maybe he’ll once again take up with the grief-stricken Lari, who’s still recovering from a recent gunshot wound. (He was accidentally shot by Elias.) It’s a soap, remember!

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In a recent Instagram post (above) Paavola thanked the couple’s fans and MissFinlandia88 who “took our story around the world.” He also thanked English-speaking fans on YouTube.

Well, all good things come to an end. For Paavola, who has been moonlighting as a real estate agent, he’ll still keep in touch with his on-screen ‘better half.’ The duo have become good friends and even play hockey on the same team. You never know where even a made-up gay relationship will take you.

To start over and watch everything, check out MissFinlandia88’s YouTube channel.

Takei “Disappointed” in Gay Sulu

With all due respect to George Takei, whom we can all agree is awesome, I think the revelation that Hikaru Sulu is gay in the soon-to-be-released film Star Trek: Beyond is a fine thing.

Screenwriter and Scotty portrayer Simon Pegg says that it was done as an homage to Takei, who is openly gay, but Takei says he’s disappointed in the choice to take a character who has always been straight and suddenly make him gay 50 years after he was introduced in the original series. He says it’s against the vision of creator George Roddenberry.

Takei may have something there; after all, no one involved in the film reboot of the original series has had the benefit of knowing and working with Roddenberry. That said, I think if Roddenberry were alive today, he may well have approved.

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(clockwise from top left) George Takei as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, the original television series, John Cho as Sulu in the latest Star Trek motion picture series, Zachary Quinto as the latest Spock, and Simon Pegg as Montgomery Scott, the chief engineer on the starship Enterprise. Pegg also wrote the screenplay for the latest film.

Zachary Quinto, who portrays Spock in the franchise had this to say, as reported on Towleroad:

I was disappointed by the fact that George was disappointed. Any member of the LGBT community that takes issue with the normalized and positive portrayal of members of our community in Hollywood and in mainstream blockbuster cinema…I get it that he has had his own personal journey and has his own personal relationship with this character but, you know, as we established in the first ‘Star Trek’ film in 2009, we’ve created an alternate universe, and my hope is that eventually George can be strengthened by the enormously positive response from especially young people who are heartened by and inspired by this really tasteful and beautiful portrayal of something that I think is gaining acceptance and inclusion in our societies across the world, and should be.

Quinto’s remarks buttress Pegg’s in The Guardian:

He’s right, it is unfortunate, it’s unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasn’t featured an LGBT character until now. We could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she would have been primarily defined by their sexuality, seen as the ‘gay character’, rather than simply for who they are, and isn’t that tokenism?

Justin Lin, Doug Jung and I loved the idea of it being someone we already knew because the audience have a pre-existing opinion of that character as a human being, unaffected by any prejudice. Their sexual orientation is just one of many personal aspects, not the defining characteristic. Also, the audience would infer that there has been an LGBT presence in the Trek Universe from the beginning (at least in the Kelvin timeline), that a gay hero isn’t something new or strange. It’s also important to note that at no point do we suggest that our Sulu was ever closeted, why would he need to be? It just hasn’t come up before.

Pegg continued, saying:

The viewing audience weren’t open minded enough at the time and it must have forced Roddenberry to modulate his innovation. His mantra was always ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations’. If he could have explored Sulu’s sexuality with George, he no doubt would have. Roddenberry was a visionary and a pioneer but we choose our battles carefully.

And he ended the interview with a sentiment that, I believe, we can all agree with:

Whatever dimension we inhabit, we all just want to be loved by those we love (and I love George Takei). I can’t speak for every reality but that must surely true of this one. Live long and prosper.

For Trek geeks, I think the point that the TOS (the original series) timeline and the Kelvin (movie reboot) timelines are different and therefore the canon is different. For folks pushing for inclusion, I can’t imagine a better universe to do that in than Star Trek. Except, perhaps, for our own.


Somewhat Related Post from 2013: Here